If you are a pop music fanatic, you have most likely heard Charli XCX’s name a few times this year. After being the voice behind hits such as Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy‘, Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It‘ and her own ‘Boom Clap‘, she decided to please her audience in a different way in 2017. Her EP from 2016, ‘Vroom Vroom‘, had a way more electronic sound than both of her studio albums and the people she met while working on it, added to the sounds she found, definitely made her take a turn in the right direction.
After a shared frustration and disappointment between both the artist and her fans caused by the fact that her third studio album seemed to not progress and could not get a proper release, a struggle that lots of pop stars face these days, Charli decided to collect some of the music she had made in the studio while bored and put it out in the form of a “mixtape”, officially giving birth to ‘Number 1 Angel’ in March. The whole project was made in two weeks and it was a collaboration with A.G. Cook, the producer behind the PC Music label, which has created a new genre (and movement) of pop music taken to the next level as it is accompanied by a ‘cyber’ aesthetic and a change in the definition of what it means to be an artist.
SOPHIE, another pioneer of PC Music, also came back after her work in ‘Vroom Vroom‘ to produce and write some of the songs that were included in the mixtape. The mixtape featured an all-female line-up of collaborators in the vocal section, with the names of Starrah, RAYE, MØ, Uffie, ABRA, and internet sensation CupcakKe.
‘Number 1 Angel‘ was as fresh as it was delightful and heartbreaking. While the influence of A.G. Cook’s brand sound was not so intense and it stayed close to its pop feeling, it was tracks like ‘ILY2‘, ‘Babygirl‘ – with an 80’s disco-inspired kind of beat, ‘Roll With Me‘ – where the voice effects most stand out, and ‘Drugs‘ that truly defined that the production would be taking the wheel and that the ‘avant-pop’ feeling would be a running theme during the whole project. In all honesty, this feels more like an album than a mixtape: not only because it is not free but also because it feels quite cohesive and some of the tracks had real potential to become singles. A previous tweet by Charli herself indicates that she might have wanted a free release for it and her label did not allow it. Whatever ended up happened and why the decision of calling it a mixtape was taken is not of our knowledge, but we can be thankful that fans got 10 amazing and unique tracks to fill the void while waiting for the third studio album.
“For me personally, I don’t think albums are the end goal anymore for musicians. Continuously releasing music really suits the way that I work as a songwriter and as an artist,” said the singer in an interview with FADER.
Although Ms. XCX had hinted at the possibility of another mixtape anytime soon, things seemed to be on track for the third album when she released the single ‘Boys,‘ a dreamy pop song about simply being obsessed with —you guessed it— boys. It found its success not only in its catchy lyrics but also in its star-studded video directed by herself, which has gained over 65 million views on YouTube.
However, out of the blue and very suddenly Charli announced in the first week of December —almost a Christmas miracle— that she would be releasing yet another mixtape, along with its longer-than-ever list of collaborators, release date, and title: ‘Pop 2’ was upon us.
? POP 2 IS COMING ? pic.twitter.com/pOwkUTksKw
— CHARLI XCX (@charli_xcx) 7 de diciembre de 2017
After the release of the single ‘Out of My Head‘ with the incredible Tove Lo and the newcomer ALMA, whose latest video for ‘Phases‘ was directed by Charli herself, released other two tracks before the full release: ‘Unlock It‘ and ‘I Got It‘ were nothing like each other and definitely different from the first song, so no one knew what to expect from the full project.
Due to human nature, our first reaction is to instantly compare the two mixtapes. When I first heard ‘Pop 2,‘ I simply could not get into it, I thought it was a bit of a mess and that Charli had exaggerated what she wanted to achieve in a way that it was just not pleasant to hear. However, after listening again more times I got fascinated by it. The thing with this creation is that it is not meant to be thought of as a continuation of ‘Numer 1 Angel,’ but instead, it is a re-start. And that is why when we hear them back to back it almost seems like two completely different people made it.
Unlike its predecessor, ‘Pop 2‘ is a full creation of the sound in PC Music. Although Charli’s name is the one that is shown everywhere, it would not be what it is without A.G. Cook, who either co-wrote or co-produced (or both) every single track. Now, in all fairness, his influence in this mixtape probably makes it not for everyone. All of the singer’s projects are so pop-based that they are most likely to appeal to the general public, but additions like the screeching in ‘Tears,’ or the extremely glitchy sound at the beginning of ‘Track 10’ —which is by far the most unique track on the record— might just be too overwhelming for certain people. But that is fine, the real intention behind this mixtape is to experiment beyond barriers and have lots of fun, and not to sell or be promoted heavily only to have a single sounding all day on the radio.
Although there are some on-point lines like “One rose, layin’ on your grave ’cause / You pushed everyone away, but / My mausoleum, pretty like Versailles,” lyrics are not the strength in this mixtape, which definitely makes sense since the sonic experience is so capturing that you can barely catch them. There is a lot of repetition, especially in tracks like ‘Unlock It,’ where the phrase ‘lock it’ is said more than 60 times; and there is also lots of auto-tune all over the place. These, however, are implemented to develop the futuristic environment that the project wants to convey and not because of a lack of creativity.
“My one contribution was to turn the Auto-Tune down for some of it, and then really go hard with it on other songs, so it feels as intentional as possible,” explained A.G. on an interview with FADER. “Like, on the end of “Lucky” where it goes higher than you’d naturally be able to sing. And then on [“Track 10”], where it gets super weird. It’s definitely an experiment.”
Another important factor in the making of ‘Pop 2‘ is definitely its high amount of collaborators: there are a total of 13 people featured, spread in only 10 tracks. Unlike ‘Number 1 Angel,’ where they were all female, this one contains male voices like Estonian rapper Tommy Cash or multi-talented Korean artist Jay Park. One of the main criticisms made towards the mixtape is that some of the features are just unnecessary or do not give Charli enough time to shine. However, she claimed that “This mixtape isn’t necessarily about me — it’s really about giving everybody their moment to own the song.” To me, although it is true that certain artists could have fit better on different tracks or certain verses needed something else to blend in better with the song, the collaborators only manage to make ‘Pop 2‘ fresher: you have people from the LGBTQ+ community like transgender pop star Kim Petras or genderqueer rapper Mykki Blanco, people singing in different languages like Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar, or performance artists and activists like Dorian Electra. The fact that so many people from different countries and backgrounds can offer a bit of their point of view makes Charli’s sound richer and definitely raises the listener’s curiosity. In times when we are used to seeing the same pop singers collaborate with the same rappers over and over, Ms. XCX’s example is one to follow.
In balance, ‘Number 1 Angel‘ and ‘Pop 2‘ are two musical pieces that are perfect to define what is to come in the pop industry that has been evolving since its beginning: more and more diversity. There definitely are skills that Charli XCX has not mastered, but she has a view of music that can end up in something complex while actually being rooted in something quite simple: having fun. She truly wants to advance as an artist, meet new people, visit different places and provide her loyal fans of something that she and they can be proud of. That is what will take her far into her career.
Although no one really knows when her third album will arrive, one thing is for sure: she does not need to follow the common structure of her peers to succeed, she is already getting to new heights by doing her own thing.